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BNS 210 Research Methods: Read scholarly articles

Anatomy of a Scholarly Article

The anatomy of a scholarly article

While you are doing research, you will find numerous peer-reviewed scholarly articles that you believe will be useful to extend your knowledge and offer opposing viewpoints. Knowing more about how they are structured will make reading them easier. Most scholarly articles have a set structure:

Title: The title of an article should contain the keywords necessary to give the reader an idea what to expect the article will focus on.

Abstract (Summary): The abstract, generally written by the author(s) of the article, provides a concise summary of the whole article. Usually, it is under 250 words and highlights the focus, study results and conclusion(s) of the article. It is provided so that readers examining the article can decide quickly whether the article meets their needs.

Introduction (Why should we study this?): In this section, the authors introduce their topic, explain the purpose of the study, and present why it is important, unique or how it adds to existing knowledge in their field. Look for the author's hypothesis or thesis here. 

Literature Review (Who else is studying this?/"They say..."): In this section, the authors synthesize and analyze previous research published on this topic.  This section outlines what others have found and what questions still remain. Most importantly, it situates the current study within the previous scholarly conversation.

Methodology / Materials and Methods (How did we study this?): This section of a scholarly article explains the details of how the study was performed. For quantitative research, it defines the variables and how they will be studied. There should be enough specifics so that you could repeat the study if you wanted.

Results  (What happened): This section includes the findings from the study. Data gathered and statistical results are often found in the form of tables, charts, and graphs. Some papers include an analysis here.

Discussion / Analysis (What it means): This section should tell you what the authors felt was significant about their results. The authors analyze their data and describe what they believe it means. Some papers include the strengths and weaknesses of the study, and recommendations for future research in this section.

Conclusion (What was learned): Here the authors offer their final thoughts and conclusions and may include: how the study addressed their hypothesis, how it contributes to the field, the strengths and weaknesses of the study, and recommendations for future research. Some papers combine the discussion and conclusion.

Reference list All scholarly articles end with a list of works cited throughout the article.

How to Read a Scholarly Article

How to read a scholarly article

Most experienced researchers do not read a scholarly article from the first word to the last one, straight through in order. They read the article out-of-order, normally looking first at the abstract, introduction and conclusion and then the middle sections. Why? It helps you to understand the article better and, in the long run, saves time. Below is a recommended method for reading and understanding a scholarly article.

Step 1: Read the title (seriously!)

Why? The title ought to provide useful keywords that will help you with both additional research and to set your expectations of what you should find in the article.

Identify: the keywords in the title and subtitles

Step 2: Read the abstract

Why? The abstract should quickly identify the research question, thesis and general conclusions drawn to give you a solid idea of whether this paper is worth reading further.

Skim for: Phrases like, "This paper presents..." "We show..." "We propose..."

After reading the abstract, be sure you can answer these questions:

  • What is this article about? What is the working hypothesis?
  • Is this related to my research question or area of research?

Step 3: Read the introduction and discussion/conclusion

Why? The introduction should more thoroughly identify the topic studied, its significance, and the hypothesis. After reading the introduction, you should have clear expectations of what you will find in the body of the paper. If, after reading the introduction, you still believe this article will provide you with important information for your own research, you can be certain further reading is warranted.

The conclusion should discuss the importance and limitations of the study and suggest routes for possible future study. These can be important ways to understand why this type of research matters and to discover gaps in current knowledge that you might be able to fill in your own study.

Both the introduction and conclusion help set your expectations for what is to come in the paper. Like reading the questions before the paragraph in a reading comprehension test, if you read the introduction and conclusion of a scholarly paper, you will have some idea of what you are looking for in the paper. That makes it easier to read.

In the introduction, skim for: Phrases like, "The scope of this study..."We study/compare/analyze/build on..." "First/next will will examine..." "We will show/demonstrate...." "We hypothesize..."

In the conclusion, skim for: Phrases like "The limitations of our study..." "Future research..."

After reading the introduction, be sure you can answer these questions:

  • What is the thesis or hypothesis?
  • How is this research unique?
  • What is the research justification?
  • Will this tell me anything new related to my research question?

After reading the conclusion, be sure you can answer these questions:

  • What does the study mean and why is it important?
  • What are the weaknesses in their argument?
  • Is the conclusion valid? How do you know?

Step 4: Read the literature review (often not a separate section, but rather part of the "Introduction")

Why? You will understand what is already well studied on this research topic and you will find references to other scholars/articles - especially seminal works - that you should read to expand your background knowledge.

Skim for: Names of other scholars and their contributions to your understanding of the topic. Also: important frameworks, theories, hierarchies etc. that are relevant to your topic.

After reading the literature review, be sure you can answer these questions:

  • What do we already know about this topic and what is left to discover?
  • What have other people done in regards to this topic? Who are the important scholars in this area and whose works do I want to investigate further?

Step 5: Read the Methods/Methodology section

Why? You need to think critically about how the researchers gathered and analyzed their data. If they examined a sample of a population, can you be sure they obtained a representative sample? Did their sample exclude any portion of the population? Was there potential for bias? For descriptive statistics, are the data reported clearly? Are the tables and figures clearly labeled and identified? Is it clear what, if any, manipulation was made to figures used in the article? For inferential statistics, were the appropriate tests conducted? If null hypotheses are tested, does the researcher indicate whether the hypotheses could be rejected and at what level of significance?

Skim for: Phrases like, "We estimate..." "Our dependent/independent variable..." "Our study is composed of..." "Our study examined...." "Our study population..." Also examine formulas and appendices or charts containing raw data.

After reading the methodology, be sure you can answer these questions:

  • How did the author do the research? What variables did they test? How?
  • What data are the study based on?
  • Could you repeat their work? Is all the information present in order to repeat it?
  • Is there a population they excluded in their study that you might include in yours? A confounding variable you believe they did not properly account for? Any weakness you can identify?

Step 6: Read the results/analysis/discussion

Why? This section contains the researcher's contribution to knowledge on this topic.

Skim for: Phrases like "We found/conclude...." "Our results showed..." "To explore/examine these results further..." "This finding is (in)consistent with..." Also examine data visualizations, such as charts and graphs.

After reading the results section, be sure you can answer these questions:

  • What did the author find and how did they find it?
  • Are the results presented in a factual and unbiased way?
  • In your own estimation, does their analysis agree with the data presented?
  • From what you can tell, is all the data that the methodology section led you to expect present? If not, do the authors explain why?
  • What conclusions do you formulate from this data? (And do your conclusions align with the author's conclusions?)
  • What suggestions do the authors make for further research? What weaknesses in their study do they acknowledge?

Step 7: Re-read in order

Read the entire article again in order. Reading the article twice will ensure that you have a full understanding of the article and the author's message. While re-reading, ask yourself:

  • Does what the author writes agree with other information you have found on this topic?
  • How does this article fit into your research? What is important? What new knowledge or opposing viewpoint does it provide? What might you need to cite from it?